What Are Social Norms and Why Do They Matter for Girls?

This post was written in honor of the 4th International Day of the Girl, celebrated on October 11, 2015.  

Mercy is a 14 year old girl living in Northern Kenya. She is nearing the end of primary school and she loves to learn. Occasionally, Mercy experiences harassment from her male teachers and classmates, but her passion and desire to learn keeps her excited to go to school every day. Halfway through the school year, Mercy’s parents tell her that, despite her love of school, she will not be going anymore as she is to be married to an older boy in her community. Mercy has never been formally taught about sexual and reproductive health or her rights, and she believes that a man is entitled to sex, particularly in marriage. Mercy is disappointed by this news because she had other hopes, dreams, and ambitions for her life, but she’s told by those that she respects that this will be her future. 

While Mercy is a fictional example, this reality is not uncommon to adolescent girls in Kenya, where 1 in 4  girls are married before age 18.  Child marriage is a major driver of school drop-out for girls, and married girls face an increased risk of HIV infection and early pregnancy.  Additionally, gender-based violence is common in Kenya, with 32% and 66% of girls experiencing sexual and physical violence, respectively, before age 18. This violence is often deemed acceptable, with more than 40% of girls married before age 18 believing that she deserves to be beaten if she argues with her husband or refuses to have sex with him.

Though these statistics are specific to Kenya, adolescent girls around the world share this experience. Increasing awareness and understanding of the vulnerabilities that adolescent girls face has led to a growing number of investments from diverse stakeholders to empower girls. Yet, despite concentrated efforts, girls’ outcomes lag behind their male counterparts and they remain an extremely disadvantaged population.

This begs the question: What can we do to empower girls and improve their outcomes?

In a recent project, my colleagues and I helped a major foundation explore how social norms help or hinder adolescent girls’ ability to achieve their potential. Our work shed some interesting perspectives on the challenges adolescent girls face.  

First, what are social norms? Simply put, they are deeply entrenched, collective attitudes of a society that reflect beliefs and expectations about what others should do and what they actually do. Driven by a desire for social acceptability and inclusion, individuals tend to behave in ways that conform to their perceptions and beliefs about what is deemed “normal” in their social group. For example, binge drinking on college campuses, the rise and decline of cigarette use over the past century, and the use of seat belts to promote road safety are all examples of behaviors that are rooted in social norms.

Social norms are often defined in relation to the reference group – the group(s) of people whose opinions matter in the community. For adolescent girls, this probably includes family, friends, religious or community leaders, spouse / partner, and in-laws. This means programs designed to impact adolescent girls need to not only work with girls but with the men, boys, and others who hold, practice, and perpetuate beliefs about how they should behave.

We also learned that social norms are inherently context-specific and manifest differently along a number of key dimensions (e.g., geography, age, racial / ethnic group, and socioeconomic status). For that reason, little is known about how to change them, and even less is known about how to apply this knowledge to global health and development. We see the need to further build an understanding of how and why social norms change could potentially unlock behavioral change at the system level and improve outcomes for girls.

To get there, much more research is needed.  The global health and development field is hungry for more tools, more evidence, and more examples to learn from. As we continue to learn more about this topic, we would love to hear from you:

  • What social norms have you seen at play in your work, especially if your work aims to help improve outcomes for adolescent girls?
  • What evidence do you think is needed to deepen our understanding of social norms and improve our ability to practically apply what we learn?


Photo credit: Team Kenya

Photo description: Team Kenya provides girls empowerment programming that aims to keep girls in school, prevent child marriage and teenage pregnancy, and reduce girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence and HIV/AIDS. 

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